An elephant cow’s mourning

We are spending a couple of days on a Game Reserve. It is a beautiful place where you are able to make peace with your soul. It was one of Vic’s favourite places. Vic loved the Kruger national Park too and on her last visit there witnessed a Cheetah kill!!

When we were told that Vic was terminal she fled to Mabalingwe. When she got divorced – Vic fled to Mabalingwe. This was Vic’s bit of Heaven on earth.

Vic has not been able to come to Mabalingwe for a couple of years. The roads are bad and it is a 2.5 hour trip. Just too far for her frail little body. Last year Vic was too ill and it was also Jared’s confirmation weekend.

Jared helping his Mommy to her seat in Church. 23.9.2012

The last time Vic came to Mabalingwe was in 2008. She photographed a herd of elephants. My Christmas gift, that year, was a beautifully framed enlargement of the elephant cow with her babies. Vic wrote a touching note on the back on the picture saying that I was just like the elephant cow – the matriarch of the family. This photograph is one of my most treasured possessions.

Vic's Photo
Vic’s Photo

The first time I was compared to an elephant cow I was appalled! I have however learnt so much about these amazing animals from Vic.

Elephants are widely believed to mourn the deaths of members of their herd, and even pay homage to long-dead elephants.

A 2005 study in the UK found the creatures displayed traits similar to humans and, coming across the remains of an elephant, would gently touch the skull and tusks with their trunks and feet. It is thought that hovering around the carcass and examining the bones and skull by smelling, touching and moving the bones around, is an attempt to recognize whom it was… Some elephants have been seen to weep and others make sounds associated with grief as they cover the body with leaves and branches before keeping a silent vigil. When a member of the herd has passed away, either due to fights or injury, the entire herd would gather around the dead elephant and stay there, not eating, and not allowing anything near it for 18 hours to 24 hours. Mothers of stillborn infants appear to grieve for days over her dead infant, crying and trying to revive it, before finally moving on.

“Elephants, the largest land animals on the planet, are among the most exuberantly expressive of creatures. Joy, anger, grief, compassion, love; the finest emotions reside within these hulking masses. Through years of research, scientists have found that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling. In fact, the emotional attachment elephants’ form toward family members may rival our own.

 Joy is an emotion that elephants have no shame in showing. They express their happiness and joy when they are amongst their loved ones-family and friends. Playing games and greeting friends or family members all elicit displays of joy.

But the one event that stirs a level of elephant happiness beyond compare is the birth of a baby elephant. In Echo: An Elephant to Remember, the birth of Ebony is one such occasion. The excitement of several of the females in Echo’s family can’t be contained as they are heard bellowing and blaring during the birth of the new baby.

An elephant reunion is a joyful meeting between related, but separated, elephants is one of exuberance and drama. The greeting ceremony marks the incredible welcoming of a formerly absent family member. During the extraordinary event, the elephants about to be united begin calling each other from a quarter a mile away. As they get closer, their pace quickens. Their excitement visibly flows as fluid from their temporal glands streams down the sides of their faces. Eventually, the elephants make a run towards each other, screaming and trumpeting the whole time. When they finally make contact, they form a loud, rumbling mass of flapping ears, clicked tusks and entwined trunks. The two leaning on each other, rubbing each other, spinning around, even defecating, and urinating (for this is what elephants do when they are experiencing sheer delight). With heads held high, the reunited pair fill the air with a symphony of trumpets, rumbles, screams, and roars. Bliss.

 There is no greater love in elephant society than the maternal kind. Nobody who observes a mother with her calf could doubt this. It is one of the most touching aspects of elephant social customs. The calf is so small compared to the adult that it walks under its mother, who, incredibly, does not step on it or trip over it. Mother and child remain in constant touch. If a calf strays too far from its mother, she will fetch it. The mother often touches her child with trunk and legs, helping it to its feet with one foot and her trunk. She carries it over obstacles and hauls it out of pits or ravines. She pushes it under her to protect it from predators or hot sun. She bathes it, using her trunk to spray water over it and then to scrub it gently. The mother steers her calf by grasping its tail with her trunk, and the calf follows, holding its mother’s tail. When the calf squeals in distress, its mother and others rush to its protection immediately. It is easy to see why the bond between mother and daughter lasts 50 years or more.

 One of the most moving displays of elephant emotion is the grieving process. Elephants remember and mourn loved ones, even many years after their death. When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk. Researchers don’t quite understand the reason for this behaviour. They guess the elephants could be grieving. Or they could they be reliving memories. Or perhaps the elephant is trying to recognize the deceased. Whatever the reason, researchers suspect that the sheer interest in the dead elephant is evidence that elephants have a concept of death.

 Researchers have described mother elephants who appear to go through a period of despondency after the death of a calf, dragging behind the herd for days. They’ve also witnessed an elephant herd circling a dead companion disconsolately. After some time, and likely when they realized the elephant was dead, the family members broke off branches, tore grass clumps and dropped these on the carcass. Another researcher noted a family of African elephants surrounding a dying matriarch. The family stood around her and tried to get her up with their tusks and put food in her mouth. When the rest of the herd finally moved on, one female and one calf stayed with her, touching her with their feet.

Terror, rage and stress, unfortunately, are also commonplace in the elephant repertoire of emotions. Terror afflicts baby African elephants who wake up screaming in the middle of the night after they have witnessed their families murdered and poached — a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some researchers suggest a species-wide trauma is taking place in wild elephant populations. They say that elephants are suffering from a form of chronic stress after sustaining decades of killings and habitat loss. The recent surge in cases of wild elephant rage reported by the media is a sad indicator of the kind of stress that wild elephants are undergoing. Nearly 300 persons are killed every year by wild elephants in India. But the increasing numbers of deaths are closely correlated to the ever-increasing human presence in traditional wild elephant habitats, as well as the the effects of climate change, and loss of territory and resources. The ongoing competition between elephants and humans for available land and resources is leading to ever more unfortunate and often deadly consequences.

 Human activity does more than put a stress on elephants to find resources. It can often disrupt the complex and delicate web of familial and societal relations that are so important in elephant society. Calves are carefully protected and guarded by members of the matriarchal elephant family. Any perception of danger triggers a violent reaction from the matriarch and, subsequently, the entire family. The extremes a family will go to protect a vulnerable new calf are reported in the news stories as fits of unprovoked “elephant rage.” Charging a village, storming into huts where harvested crop is stored, plundering fields and, if disturbed, turning violent are some of the instances reported by the media.

 Compassion is not reserved for offspring alone in elephant society. Elephants appear to make allowances for other members of their herd. Observers noted that one African herd always traveled slowly because one of its members had never recovered from a broken leg. And in another case, a park warden reported a herd that traveled slowly because one female was carrying around a dead calf. One perplexing report was of an adult elephant making repeated attempt to help a baby rhinoceros stuck in the mud. She continued to try to save the baby rhino despite the fact that its mother charged her each time. Risking her life for the sake of an animal that is not her own, not related to her, or even her own species is remarkably altruistic in nature.

 While there is a great deal more to learn about what elephants feel, such accounts are astonishing. They reveal a creature that weeps, revels, rages and grieves. They lead us to believe that the depth of elephant emotional capacity knows no limit. They are striking for they suggest that elephants act on feelings and not solely for survival.

So my baby girl, tomorrow I shall start looking for the elephants. I will remember your exuberant excitement and joy when you saw the herd. I will remember your words “Mommy, you are just like that elephant matriarch. You also protect and care for your family.”

Bottom-line, if animals mourn how can we as mothers be expected “to move along”…


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I am a sixty plenty wife, mother, sister, grandmother and friend. I started blogging as a coping mechanism during my beautiful daughter's final journey. Vic was desperately ill for 10 years after a botched back operation. Vic's Journey ended on 18 January 2013 at 10:35. She was the most courageous person in the world and has inspired thousands of people all over the world. Vic's two boys are monuments of her existence. She was an amazing mother, daughter, sister and friend. I will miss you today, tomorrow and forever my Angle Child.

8 thoughts on “An elephant cow’s mourning”

  1. Beautiful story of maternal love. I do agree with your summation, ‘how can mothers be expected to move along’. We grieve not because we are seeking sympathy, but for the lost love of our child that will live forever in our mind… God bless.


    1. Shirley your words “We grieve not because we are seeking sympathy, but for the lost love of our child that will live forever in our mind” are so true!!! It is a pain than only a bereaved parent can understand. Much love!


  2. Hallo daar Tersia,

    Ek hoop dit gaan goed en dat julle die paar dae weg geniet ?

    Weereens baie dankie dat Ricardo kon saam kom – ek waardeer dit baie – en ek verneem van hom dat hy homself vreeslik geniet – ek hoop net die seuns gedra hulself ?

    Die rede vir my mail is dat ek wou hoor of julle nog belangstel in die beddens wat ons het vir Stepping Stones ?

    Ek was die afgelope paar maande ongelooflik besig – maar soos tannie weet is Vicky daagliks diep in my hart gedra – en ek wil werklik nou met alle erns probeer om ‘n bydrae te maak ?

    Kan tannie my asseblief laat weet waarmee ek alles kan help ? Ek wil regtig so graag help om daardie wonderlike droom van julle te ondersteun waar ek kan – as julle my sal toelaat ?

    Laat weet my asseblief – en weereens geniet julle vakansie !

    Onthou – ek is baie lief vir julle !

    Lekker dag verder,

    Vriendelike groete,

    Lee Fourie

    Operations Director

    Style Outsourcing

    Cell :0825518792

    Tel : 0119083604


    20 Botha Street, Alrode, 1451

    P.O. Box 801, Mondeor, 2110



    1. Baie dankie Lee! Ja dit sal great wees dankie. Ons gaan dit egter verkoop vir fondse. So besluit maar. Ek sal baie dankbaar wees vir julle hulp en ondersteuning. Ek verstaan egter dat Martin onder druk is van sy gemeente so ek wou nie druk op julle plaas nie. Ons opening is die 9de Oktober 5.30. Dit sal great wees as julle kan bywoon. Richardo is ‘n absolute plesier! Hy het die mooiste geaardheid!! Dankie dat hy kon saamkom!! Baie liefde


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